WASHINGTON — Sen. Lindsey Graham is preparing a one-time $1.5 billion emergency funding bill to make a point that restrictions in the White House's landmark aid deal to Israel was an overreach.
Graham, a hawkish, pro-Israel Republican from South Carolina, told reporters Sept. 14 that the 10-year, $38 billion pledge was too little and the White House wrongly sought to stop Congress from adding to it. Though it is unclear whether Graham would get the backing of GOP leadership for his proposal, Israel's strong support in Congress augurs well for the measure.
The White House on Sept. 14 signed a new 10-year memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Israel on security assistance for fiscal 2019 through 2028. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, at the signing ceremony, hailed the largest single pledge of assistance in US history to any country as a sign of the two countries' "ironclad bond."
"Since the day he took office, President [Barack] Obama has provided Israel with all that it needs to defend itself in a very dangerous neighborhood," Rice said. "This funding has permitted Israel to acquire the world’s most advanced military capabilities."
A follow-on to $24 billion in military aid over the past eight years, the deal provides $33 billion in foreign military financing and $5 billion for missile defense. The deal was also billed as allowing Israel to update the lion’s share of its fighter aircraft, strengthen missile defense systems like Iron Dome and purchase more copies of America's next-generation fighter jet, the F-35.
Graham’s main objection is a letter he says Israeli officials signed promising to give back any money that Congress appropriates above the amount negotiated in the deal. Specifically, Israel has committed to neither ask nor receive additional funding beyond the scope of the current MOU, meaning no more than $3.1 billion in foreign military financing (FMF) for FY2017 and FY2018.
"The idea that the MOU is binding on us, I’m going to fight violently," Graham said. "It’s not a treaty, and we’re not a party to this. And the letter Israel apparently signed saying they would refund any money sent in ’17 and ’18 is frankly offensive, because what you’ve done is you’ve had a foreign government collude with the executive branch to neutralize the legislative branch. I’m not going to stand for that."
Graham said his bill will also renew the Iran Sanctions Act, the law that mandates many of the existing US sanctions on Iran’s energy sector and which expires at the end of the year. The two are linked, he argued, because Israel was made less safe by the US nuclear deal with Iran.
"I want our friends and allies to see that the more provocative Iran becomes, the more assistance we’re going to give [to Israel]," Graham said.
Several Republicans and Democrats voiced support for Congress’ ability to provide more than the MOU, among them Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Ranking Member Ben Cardin, D-Md. Both lauded the MOU and asserted Congress could adjust funding, but declined to comment on Graham's bill until they had seen it.
"We can adjust these numbers, but it’s usually done in consultation with the administration," Cardin said. "You can’t legally bind Congress."
"As much as I respect this president, I think he overstepped," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. "What we’ve seen is when the administration asked for $300 million for Iron Dome, and Israel asked for $600 million, I approved $600 million. ... That’s my job."
Sen. Joe Donnelly, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, which oversees US missile defense programs, as well as US-Israel collaborative missile defense programs, including Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow, called the MOU "a major achievement."
"However, Israel is situated in one of the most unstable and threat-filled regions of the world, and we must maintain the flexibility to increase our support if security conditions warrant it," said Donnelly, D-Ind. "I intend to work with my colleagues on a bipartisan basis to provide Israel the resources it needs to defend itself."
While the rigidity could be considered fiscally responsible, it is unprecedented, said Jim Moran, a former Democratic congressman from Virginia who served for many years on the House Appropriations Committee. Yet, Moran said, the limitations on Congress will be unenforceable because of Congress’ constitutional prerogatives to declare war and control the government’s purse strings.
"To plus up the amount of money available to Israel is always good politics, and sometimes its even good policy," said Moran, now a defense lobbyist at the law firm McDermott Will & Emery in Washington. "I think [the Israelis] understand that if they ever want more money, they’re going to get it."
In a briefing to reporters in Israel, the acting Israeli national security adviser, Jacob Nagel, said that with the exception of funds beyond the scope of the MOU for anti-tunnel technologies and cyber- and energy-related initiatives, Israel is obliged to return all congressionally appropriated funds that exceed the agreement’s top lines. He did not definitively answer if Israel is bound to return appropriated funds beyond the new levels that start in FY19, which amounts to $3.3 billion in annual FMF from the State Department's foreign operations account and $500 million in annual missile defense that comes from the Pentagon’s budget.
However, despite the rigidity of the agreement — which enhances the long-term budgeting and planning capabilities of both nations — Nagel said the two governments could negotiate at a later date possible emergency increases in the event of war or unforeseen changes in Israeli requirements.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alluded to this stipulation in July, following Graham’s visit to Israel, when he essentially committed to abiding by budgetary top lines determined by mutual agreement with the Obama administration. In a Sept. 14 statement, Netanyahu hailed the "historic" agreement for ensuring "an unprecedented level of security assistance over the coming decade."
Nagel said the agreement allows Israel to retain its ability to convert some 26 percent of its annual FMF aid into shekels for local research, development and procurement for the first five years of the MOU. However, starting in the sixth year, Israel will gradually wean itself off of this special aid — known as offshore procurement — so that by the end of the agreement, all FMF funding will be spent in the United States.
Not all of the sentiment among Israeli officials has been positive.
The day after the MOU was signed, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak lambasted Netanyahu in a Washington Post op-ed, claiming the prime minister’s all-out opposition to the Iran deal, which included a fiery speech at the US Congress, led to a smaller-than-expected deal for Israel.
"The damage produced by Netanyahu’s irresponsible management of the relations with the White House is now fully manifest," Barak wrote.